The problem is that successful playwrights are not always the best teachers. These letters in themselves are not a course of study, but rather consider these missives to serve as muses that sit on your shoulder and opine.
There are no workable rules for play-writing to be found here—nor, indeed, any particular light of any kind on the subject, so the letters may be approached with a mind arranged for enjoyment.
Any one sufficiently inexperienced to consult books in order to find out how to write a play will certainly undergo a severe touch of confusion in this case, for four of the letter-writers confess quite frankly that they do not know—two of these thereupon proceeding to tell us, thus forcibly illustrating their first statement.
One author exclaims, “Have instinct!”—another, “Have genius!” Where these two necessaries are to be obtained is not revealed. Equally discouraging is the Dumas declaration that “Some from birth know how to write a play and the others do not and never will.” That would have killed off a lot of us—if we had seen it in time.
The foregoing indicates to some extent the buffeting about which a searcher for practical advice on play-writing may find himself subject in this collection of letters. He had better go for mere instruction to those of a lower order of intellect, whose imaginative or creative faculties do not monopolize their entire mental area.
A play or drama is not a simple and straight-told story; it is a device—an invention—a carefully adjusted series of more or less ingenious traps, independent yet inter-dependent, and so arranged that while yet trapping they carry forward the plot or theme without a break.
These traps of scene, of situation, of climax, of acts and tableaux or of whatever they are, require to be set and adjusted with the utmost nicety and skill so that they will spring at the precise instant and in the precise manner to seize and hold the admiration—sympathy—interest—or whatever they may be intended to capture, of an audience.
Their construction and adjustment—once one of the simplest—is now of necessity most complicated and intricate. They must operate precisely and effectively, otherwise the play—no matter how admirable its basic idea—no matter how well the author knows life and humanity, will fail of its appeal and be worthless—for a play is worthless that is unable to provide itself with people to play to.
But audiences are a most undependable and unusual species of game. From time immemorial their tastes, requirements, habits, appetites, sentiments and general characteristics have undergone constant change and modification; and thus continues without pause to the present day. The dramatic trap that would work like a charm not long ago may not work at all to-day; the successful trap of to-day may be useless junk tomorrow.
As to the talented authors of these letters, they know excellently well—every one of them—how to write a play—or did while still alive—even tho some of them see fit to deny it; but they cannot tell us how to do it for the very good reason that it cannot be told.
Their charming efforts to find a way out when cornered by such an inquiry as appears to have been made to them are surely worth all their trouble and annoyance—not to speak of their highly probable exasperation.
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